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How much do you know about Cambridge inventions? Take the quiz to find out.

Two new books highlight the city’s outsized role in changing the world.

Kendall Square on a January weekday. A new book, “Where Futures Converge,” dives into the dynamics that make Kendall Square such a powerful engine of scientific breakthroughs and startup formation.Scott Kirsner

How many other cities the size of Cambridge lay claim to so many world-changing inventions?

Once called Newtown, the place had a decent shot at becoming the capital of Massachusetts in the 1600s. It lost out to Boston, got a college as a consolation prize, and has been pretty busy ever since.

Two new books out this month make a convincing case that when it comes to science, medicine, technology, literature, and social activism, Cambridge, with a population of about 118,000, has been a major driver of progress.

One is “Born in Cambridge: 400 Years of Ideas and Innovators,” by the husband-and-wife team of Karen Weintraub and Michael Kuchta, and the other is “Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub,” by Bob Buderi. “Born in Cambridge” is a nicely illustrated greatest hits list, geared to history buffs and general readers; “Where Futures Converge” dives into the dynamics that make Kendall Square such a powerful engine of scientific breakthroughs and startup formation.

All three authors live in the city. Weintraub is a former Boston Globe science editor who now writes about health care for USA Today, and Kuchta is an urban design planner at Harvard. Buderi was the founder of the startup news outlet Xconomy, and editor of the MIT-published magazine Technology Review.


Rather than serving up a book review, here’s a 20-question quiz based on the two books. Some questions may even stump people who’ve lived or worked in Cambridge for decades. If you get 15 or more right, you’re a superstar. The answer key is at the end.

1. One of the first successful manufacturing firms in Cambridge was Kimball & Davenport, which introduced central aisles, bathrooms, reversible seats, and shock absorbers to ________ travel. Unfortunately, it took some payment in stock, which sank the business.


2. Combining rubber with woven fabric helped make this product — essential for fighting fires — much stronger: ______.

3. After a proposed merger with Harvard fell apart, this school moved from Boston to Cambridge, buying 46 acres for $775,000: _____.

4. The Swiss biopharma company Novartis maintains its largest research facility in Cambridge, in a building once owned by _____, which built the world’s biggest factory devoted solely to making candy.

5. A lab on the MIT campus worked to make ____ technology more precise and practically useful during World War II; it helped the Allies better aim their bombs and sink more German subs.

6. Harvard dropouts started Microsoft, Facebook, Fitbit, and _______, which began selling its first camera at the Jordan Marsh department store just in time for Christmas 1948.

7. Google acquired a small startup based in Cambridge and Palo Alto called ______ to help it get into the business of developing operating systems for mobile devices; that acquisition helped lead to a big Google branch office in Kendall Square and the world’s most popular mobile operating system.

8. Before most people knew that AI stood for “artificial intelligence,” Cambridge had a cluster of companies known as _________, which included firms such as Thinking Machines, Symbolics, Allied Expert Systems, and Lisp Machines.

9. In the 1970s, Cambridge Mayor Al Vellucci worried that lab research on recombinant DNA might unleash manmade diseases or Frankenstein monsters in his city. At the opening of the new Cambridge headquarters of the biotech company _____, the first company to receive a permit for working with recombinant DNA, Vellucci quipped, “It’s kind of hard for me to say ‘welcome,’ but we do welcome your taxes.”


10. The first Black person to earn a PhD at Harvard, ________ had to find off-campus housing with a Black family because he could not live in the student dorms. “I was happy at Harvard, but for unusual reasons,” he wrote. “One of these circumstances was my acceptance of racial segregation.” He was later among the founders of the NAACP.

11. Despite not triumphing in MIT’s annual entrepreneurship competition, _______ has grown into a $1.8 billion company by building a global network that accelerates the delivery of Internet content.

12. Margaret Fuller was a book critic, war correspondent, and the first editor of transcendentalist __________________’s literary journal “The Dial.” When she left Cambridge for New York, in 1844, she became one of the first female professional journalists in America.

13. Tailors discouraged Elias Howe, but he kept working on his _________, until it was faster than any human.

14. A telegraph wire running from Harvard’s astronomical observatory into Boston was used by _________ to demonstrate that his new device for transmitting the human voice could work at long distances.

15. Considered an essential tool by anyone reading books and trying to emphasize certain key passages to refer to later, the ____________ was invented by Carter’s Ink in Cambridge in 1963.

16. Harvard’s Rumford Professor on the Application of Science to the Useful Arts invented ________, a leavening agent for bakers that was more reliable than yeast.


17. During the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission, engineers at _______ in Cambridge ran simulations of different rescue scenarios to help NASA bring the three astronauts home safely.

18. Steve Jobs once told an interviewer that ______’s spreadsheet software, invented in a Harvard Business School classroom, “propelled the success of Apple more than any other single event.”

19. Before Airbnb, Robin Chase’s Cambridge startup ______ made the “sharing economy” real, giving people access to an expensive asset on an hourly basis, with online reservations.

20. Early matches between Harvard and McGill University, and Harvard and Tufts, may have led to the modern version of ______, which the Harvard faculty officially abolished in 1884 because it was “brutal and dangerous.” (Despite the ban, games resumed a year later.)

The answers

1. Railroad

2. Hoses

3. MIT

4. NECCO, the New England Confectionery Company

5. Radar

6. Polaroid

7. Android

8. AI Alley

9. Biogen

10. W.E.B. DuBois

11. Akamai

12. Ralph Waldo Emerson

13. Sewing machine

14. Alexander Graham Bell

15. Yellow highlighting marker

16. Baking powder

17. Draper Labs

18. VisiCalc

19. ZipCar

20. Football

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.